An Interview With Gemfields CEO Ian Harebottle

Under Ian Harebottle, Gemfields has helped breathe new life into the emerald trade. Now he’s set his sights on the entire colored stone world.

South Africa–born Ian Harebottle became CEO of Gemfields in 2009, after previously heading Tanzanite-­One. Since coming on board, he has laid out an ambitious agenda to make the London-based mining company the “De Beers of colored stones,” with an emphasis on ethical mining and sustainability at its Kagem emerald mine in Zambia and Montepuez ruby mine in Mozambique. In 2012, Gemfields purchased legendary ­jeweler Fabergé.

He talks to JCK about dealing with different cultures, the importance of passion, and how success in business is like finding the right love.

Is there a piece of management wisdom that you live by?

I like [Virgin Group chairman] Richard Branson’s “Always use people younger and smarter than you.” I am astounded by the brilliance of those around me. I’m supported by a really great team.

What do you look for in your employees?

Passion is a big one. Skills can be learned. I find that very few people come into my organization with perfect skills. It is being willing to apply your skills.

My biggest job is putting the right person in the right role. Some of the superstars in our business didn’t come through the normal route. I have had some great people come from left field. The challenge is not finding great people but finding great people and allowing them to find out how great they are.

You’ve been responsible for some major corporate decisions, like the purchase of Fabergé. How do you make those decisions?

It is never easy, but I’m never ­frightened to make a decision. I always say that not making a choice is allowing life to make a choice for you. I have a core team that helps me be in a really strong position.

Any advice you received in your life that influenced you?

As far as the real things that stick in my mind, sometimes things just hit you. I saw this movie with this young guy talking to his teacher and asking why people make bad relationship choices. And she said you get the love you think you deserve. In business, you get the success you think you deserve.

As head of an international company, you travel quite a bit. What’s it like visiting various developing countries?

I have found that each country has its own idiosyncrasies and uniqueness. I find if you treat people with respect, they will generally treat you with respect back. I have traveled in a lot of places where people have said, “Isn’t that dangerous?” I have had some interesting situations, but fear doesn’t drive me.

What are the challenges of ­running a public company?

A lot of people ask, how do you cope with being a public company? There are more and more regulations. You can either see them as being painful or you can see them as opportunities to drive excellence.

The fact is that core to our vision are ethical gemstones and transparency. Being a public company forces you to think and review what you are doing right. So it means that I can sleep at night.

Can you tell us about your ­background and how you got involved with colored stones?

My father was in the diamond industry. I always loved diamonds, but I have always loved color. Back in 2000, I met a colleague and we realized that if De Beers could do what it did with diamonds, we could do something similar with colored stones and put rubies next to diamonds. We could put emeralds next to diamonds. The other day, a guru in the diamond business said to me, “You should stop saying Gemfields is the De Beers of colored stones. Gemfields is doing a better job than De Beers.” I thought that was a tremendous compliment.

What are your future plans?

If you are not going forward, you are going back. We are doing emeralds and rubies. I like to talk about the colored stone “traffic light.” We plan to scale up more and more emerald production and the same for sapphires. 

As far as Fabergé, it is probably one of the greatest jewelry brands of all time. We have the chance of being part of history. How many people are given that privilege? It’s not just a privilege, it’s a responsibility, and my team and I take it extremely seriously.

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